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Clinic Report: Foxhunting 101

Potomac Hunt hosted a unique weekend clinic to get fellow adrenaline junkies hooked on hunting to give newbies a safe, controlled way to try the sport.

This summer my project has been to get tuned up for foxhunting–and the season is finally here! Potomac Hunt’s Intro to Foxhunting weekend clinic was the perfect way to ease into first field after I had gone cubbing a couple times in second.

Friday night: Hound Walk Happy Hour

6:17 p.m.: Per usual, I’m late, again, for no good reason. Even though I know when I need to leave, somehow I always fool myself into thinking I can make any trip in 20 minutes. Why do I do this to myself–especially when I’m trying to make a good impression on the hunt people?! Maybe they won’t notice if I just loop around in the woods and join them halfway through the hound walk?

6:30 p.m.: In the countryside now…stuck behind a cyclist going up a blind hill. Why???

6:41 p.m.: Crawling down the long, long, long gravel driveway to the hunt kennels. Oh well. At this point, I just have to own up to the whole fashionably late thing, and enjoy the slow journey under the balcony of trees.

6:45 p.m.: Relief! Everyone is still standing around the kennels. And by everyone, I mean EVERYONE–approximately a bajillion kids, presumably interested in the Junior program, are playing with this spring’s puppies, while the adults mingle, flitting from group to group. A few hounds wander around outside the pen too.

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6:50 p.m.: Mingling is not my thing. I soon see some people I know, and cling to them like a herd-bound horse. Oh- there’s someone I met once who breeds foxhounds for show. She fills me in on all the different kinds of hounds walking around–a shaggy Fell hound, her own English show dog Ditto, and of course, the kennel full of Potomac Hunt’s tall, sleek-coated American foxhounds. Each hunt breeds their own hounds selectively to find the perfect qualities for their particular territory and style of hunting.

And of course…trying to convince someone who prefers the beefier English type that American foxhounds are better is like trying to convince someone who prefers Arabians to Thoroughbreds to switch camps. To each their own.

7:00 p.m.: We’re ready to move off, and the hounds tumble out of the kennel, their entire bodies wiggling with excitement. (If I recall correctly, it was 17 1/2 couple–translated, that means 35 hounds.) I thought it was hard to learn all the people’s names as I got involved with this whole hunt thing–figuring out which hound was which would be an entirely new challenge.

7:10 p.m.: It’s a beautiful evening–unseasonably cool, if a little humid. I walk near the rear with a different friend–one who regularly walks out hounds, and whose horse I will be borrowing the following morning for the ridden portion of the clinic.  The masters and huntsman are up by the hounds, of course, but I get a little commentary from her about the hounds–as well as the wise advice to watch my step, as several hounds are “emptying” along our country stroll.

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7:25 p.m.: We reach the point where the kennels meet an adjoining property, and linger a while before turning back. Huntsman Larry Pitts calls out each of the hounds by name, and tells a little bit about each one. My favorite is Kadillac–a flashy dog hound with lots of freckly spots on his neck and shoulders, like a fleabitten gray horse.

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7:45 p.m.: We make our way back to the kennels. Hounds are put away–dog (male) hounds in one pen, and bitch (female) hounds in another.

8:00 p.m.: Everyone gathers for wine and cheese in the clubhouse, which is decorated with all kinds of hunt photos and paintings. I contemplate sneaking off with one of the Covertside magazines on a side table but decide against it.  You’re here to mingle and meet people whether you like it or not! I grab a plastic cup, fill it halfway with some red wine…and suddenly, mingling feels a lot more fun.

8:30 p.m.: Time to go home, clean tack, lay out my clothes, and get a good night’s rest for the real part of the clinic–the mock hunt.

Saturday morning: Mock Hunt

5:00 a.m.: How is it that waking up at 5 never seems to be a problem if it’s for riding purposes? I even have time to fix myself some coffee, and I actually remember to put pajama pants on over my breeches to keep them clean.

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6:00 a.m.: I arrive at the barn of my friend who is lending me her horse Windsor. I love grays…but it takes some serious scrubbing to get that yellowish tail to approach cleanliness.

6:40 a.m.: In true foxhunter fashion, we tacked up before stepping on the trailer to avoid forgetting something important, like a girth.

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7:00 a.m.: Windsor loads up like a champ, and off we go!

7:20 a.m.: Of course, he’s pooped on his leg. I scrub some more, then off to the registration table. We’re one of the first trailers there. Weather looks ominous, and I really regret that the only rain jacket I have is in the forbidden color–red, which is reserved for masters and staff only. Instead I pull a gray sweater over my polo and hope it doesn’t rain too much.

7:25 a.m.: Doughnuts! Coffee! I love these people.

7:40 a.m.: A TON of kids arrive. I can only imagine the logistics of finding each of them a ride and a horse.

8:00 a.m.: Skip Crawford, one of the masters, explains the do’s and don’ts of hunting. Don’t pass the master. Stay quiet. Watch what the hounds are doing, and listen for the horn calls. Stick with someone who can give you a hand if  you need it. And most of all–have fun!

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Kids seemed chilly and not quite awake yet.

8:20 a.m.: Hurry up and wait is the name of the game with hunting. Windsor was happily eating hay on the trailer, so I watched the organized chaos of about 25 kids from a local riding school (about half riding, and about half as foot followers) getting the ponies ready.

8:50 a.m.: Hounds were moving off in 10 minutes–time to put on Windsor’s bridle, clean up his poop-stained leg a little more, and mount up from the trailer. The butterflies started to flutter, and I forced myself to take a deep breath.

I had gone cubbing twice, but I figured that this clinic environment would be a good time to try moving up to first field. Even if this was kind of a “mock” hunt, with only an hour of riding expected, and I’d schooled most of the jumps around the kennels before on casual trail rides, I was a little nervous. It seemed like it was threatening to rain…and what if somehow my horse ran off with me, or slipped in the mud, or I flipped over his head over a coop or something…

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So, like the teacher’s pet I am, when it was time to move off, I rode right up front with the masters, Skip Crawford and Peter Hitchen.

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Riding to a covert by a soybean field–a common crop planted after the first wheat cutting, as Peter Hitchen, MFH, informed me

9:15 a.m.: Again–hurry up and wait. We trotted up a little hill to watch Huntsman Larry Pitts and his whippers-in put the hounds in a covert (wooded area). A few hounds spoke, and we heard a trilling, encouraging note on the horn–they’d found a fox! But, being foxy and clever, it ran straight toward the railroad tracks. Not a great place to bring a bunch of hounds and beginner foxhunters, as the masters explained to us–so Larry would be stopping the hounds and turning them around to try a different covert.

9:24 a.m.: A blur. We trot through some woods. Suddenly it strikes me that maybe I shouldn’t be riding so close to the master–so I ask. Apparently Potomac is unique in that it allows its field to stay pretty close to master, huntsman, and hounds so that everyone can see the hound work, so it’s fine. Not that I really know what the hounds are doing–but I do try to see if I can pick out any of the ones I met last night at the hound walk. Hopeless!

9:30 a.m.: We come upon another covert, and the hounds find a fox right away. They’re right on his tail! Through the woods, up a hill, over a coop, bam, bam, bam–and then–The Driveway of Death. The slick, newly repaved one that my trail riding buddies had warned me about. The master led us the long way around it. Phew.

 9:44 a.m.: For a while there I wasn’t sure if we were going to draw another covert, but we’re on our way back. A shame…I was ready for more since it stayed so nice and cool, and it never did quite start raining!

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10:15 a.m.: I spend about ten minutes trying to figure out how to connect the hose to the trailer’s water tank, but soon Windsor is cooled off and happily munching hay again. His owner said she saw me jump the coop while she was riding along with the car followers , and gave me an A+ for form. Awesome! At least I didn’t make a complete fool of myself.

10:30 a.m.: As more and more horses are rinsed off and put back on the trailers, people are starting to congregate by the kennels, where we’ll learn more about how the hounds are cared for.

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10:33 a.m.: Before we can have our hunt breakfast, the hounds get theirs. We all shuffle into the center aisleway between the dog hound pen and the bitch hound pen. The dog hounds get fed first today, and each is called by name–the skinnier ones and slow eaters first, and the “easy keepers” last–and let in to eat one by one.

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It smells like wet dog, but it’s all surprisingly organized. Apparently, the hounds eat over 100 lbs of performace dog kibble a day! And on days before a hunt, they eat chicken necks for the extra protein and water content.

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10:46 a.m.: A dog hound lifts his leg on an unsuspecting little girl. I can’t help but laugh. Does that make me a bad person? Oh well.

11:00 a.m.: I’m starving–so when the hounds are all fed and people start to filter out of the kennels, I scamper over to the clubhouse for fried chicken, sandwich wraps, cookies, and beer. This is the other great thing about foxhunting–you work up such an appetite you can eat whatever the heck you want.

11: 15 a.m.: The fashion show! Whipper-in Chad Traugott explains what to wear and why. Stock tie as an emergency bandage, don’t give yourself a tracheotomy with your stock pin, wear a helmet–got it. I’m all up to speed on the fashion after a couple trips to Middleburg this spring. And I have an unreasonable love of all things plaid, so I am entranced by the tweed. Want.

11:30 a.m.: Skip Crawford, MFH, goes over what happened today on the hunt. Honestly, I don’t remember much, aside from the fact that we found two foxes. Food coma is setting in. Larry Pitts gives a horn blowing demonstration. It is extremely loud for the indoor setting, but at least now I know how to recognize what he is “saying” on my next hunt.

11:45 a.m.: A panel Q&A. Key points:

  • Don’t ride over land the hunt rides on as an individual without express permission from the landowner
  • Juniors can wear informal attire all year long
  • Most horses love hunting, but you never really know with a horse you’re looking at buying until you actually bring it out to hunt
  • And…other things I forgot. Like I said, food coma.

Final verdict: This really wasn’t so much a riding clinic as it was a very short hunt, with helpful explanations at the front and back end for those who haven’t yet read the booklet Riding to Hounds in America by William P. Wadsworth. And rightly so–foxhunting is about so much more than just the riding, and learning about hound care, attire, etiquette, etc. are things you cannot learn from a more typical clinic. I particularly enjoyed getting to see the different kinds of hounds.

The clinic was an excellent way to get over my nervousness about the move up to first field, and offered an accessible way for kids and adults new to hunting to try it at little cost ($40 for both days). I think more hunts should do events like this to encourage more people into the sport!

Go Riding.

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